Learning By Doing and Doing It Badly

A man sits with a pen editing a large stack of papers

“Whatever this is, this isn’t an introduction to a thesis.”

I remember the meeting with my two Master’s supervisors. I was a bit over halfway into my two-year program, and my supervisors had suggested that I begin writing. It was a MSc in applied mathematics, and there was a thesis portion. I was already working on my research, which was heavily underway but not close to finished. Starting to write the actual thesis was the next stage of my studies, and my supervisors definitely knew what they were doing. So I started writing.

My first task: write an introduction chapter. This was meant to be an introduction to my thesis and include a literature review. The suggestion made to me was to write a first rough draft and they, my supervisors, would review it. This would also be my first writing at the post-graduate level, or indeed any form of academic research writing. I took the task.

My first draft was, to be frank, awful. It was barely two pages long. From a graduate studies perspective, this was already a bad sign. The introduction also made a bunch of slightly vague and highly speculative statements, most without any real backing from references. I also used the phrase “to wit” at one point. My first rough draft was pretty terrible by any writing standard let alone grad studies standards.

And my lovely supervisors did not sugar coat their reaction. One of them essentially told me to start over with hardly any comments. The other gave me back an edited copy with more red pen ink than printed black ink. Mercifully, I was also given a couple of Master’s and doctoral theses and told to read them to see what a “real” introduction looks like.

It was a bad day but far from my worst, but it also produced one of the most helpful lessons of my life: I learn best through trying and failing badly.

After this brutal meeting, I took the theses given to me and read the introductions. I cannot recall any of the topics of these theses, the length or even what the area of research they were from, but I do remember reading them and carefully studying what they were and what my feeble first draft wasn’t. There was a large contrast and I saw it.

From that point on I took writing my introduction extremely seriously. I took a while before producing my second draft. It was significantly longer, formatted appropriately (12 pt font, 1.5 spacing) and had some actual structure to it. The critiques from my supervisors were more substantial — you can never cite often enough — but this was a sign of progress. There was something worth critiquing here. Toward the end of my Master’s program, I had a sizable thesis but also had a fairly high quality literature review and general introduction to my thesis. I truly think the ability for me to try, fall flat on my face, be told as much, and try again was a motivating factor for me. Once I knew what I shouldn’t do, I had more clarity on what I should do.

As time goes on and I’ve moved out of the academic sphere into the corporate one, this lesson still stays with me. I always relish being allowed to try and fail hard as a learning lesson, even if this is not always a welcome learning style in the business world. Companies generally don’t like to spend money on efforts that go nowhere and have no tangible benefit. I get that, more than I have in other points in my life, but I also still look for those opportunities. Getting a chance to simply learn something is precious. Opportunities for learning don’t always come along and usually don’t come cheap.

This is how I learn best, being thrown into a problem and being allowed to thrash around for solutions. This way, you can find out a lot about something, what works, what doesn’t, what could and what won’t. Keep looking for those opportunities and don’t be afraid to hand in a clunker of a first draft.

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Josh Grant

Josh Grant

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I’m a software professional, and these are my more personal thoughts.